Quest 64 and the Simple Life (of Brian)

Quest 64 was the closest thing the Nintendo 64 had to a formal RPG in the first couple years of the platform’s life. However. Developed by Imagineer, the game unenviably launched into a landscape carved by generation-defining behemoths like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears. The N64 was also months away from receiving its own landmark epic in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

As a comparatively humble jaunt, Quest 64 never stood a chance.

Predictably, the game reviewers of 1998 gave Quest 64 no quarter from its RPG contemporaries’ or Ocarina’s looming shadow. They tore into its repetitive combat, simplistic progression systems, and dearth of narrative eloquence. They denounced its aggressively generic environments, characters, and lore. They laughed at the main hero Brian, for his goofy ahoge and because his name was — of all things — Brian. Hell, my name is Brian and even I can’t get over the absurdity of a fantasy protagonist sharing that name, at least outside of Christ-adjacent parody.

Just wait for Zelda, they said.

The EGM’s holiday buyer’s guide recap for Quest 64, circa late 1998.

For my part, I did rent Quest 64 back in the day but I don’t remember it holding my interest through the weekend. In fact, I didn’t remember a damn thing about the game. In all, it seems my tattered gaming mags and I were on the same wavelength.

Poor Brian.

The good news for Quest 64 (and Brian) is just because we were inclined to dismiss it over two decades ago, that doesn’t make us beholden to that context — or those perceptions — today. The definition of which games are and aren’t “retro” is one of the more pointless arguments routinely rehashed by the community, but that doesn’t mean the moniker isn’t useful. Retrospect gives us the time and space to better understand a game like Quest 64, divorced from the lofty benchmarks it could never hope to reach, but were nonetheless underfoot.

At any rate, I figure now is as good of time as any to reembark on Brian’s journey and reevaluate it on its own modest terms.

Quest 64’s narrative premise is respectably simple. You play as the aforementioned Brian, a young apprentice mage whose sorcerer dad went missing while looking for a magical book that will end the world if it falls into the wrong hands. The logistical details of this are scant but the book was stolen and the wrong hands are ostensibly afoot. This flimsy exposition is mostly an excuse for Brian to trek across the island nation of Celtland, and through its numerous towns, trails, and dungeons to rescue his father before the big bad does the thing with the MacGuffin and everyone dies. Of course, like any self-respecting RPG, the tale culminates with an epic, inter-dimensional battle against…

————— [BEGIN SPOILERS] —————

God.

————— [END SPOILERS] —————

For me, one of the most liberating things about Quest 64 is how little it bothers to spoon feed me an overly elaborate, authored narrative. Rarely does it dive into every miniscule detail of its setting and characters. And fair enough. The world building that exists in my head is probably more fun, anyway.

Armed with pogo pencils, this school of hooligan fish skipped class to ambush Brian in the forest…and to protect their families from his sorcery, probably.

Quest 64’s adventure unfolds with relatively minimal cinematics, dialogue, and lore. It’s with keen self awareness that Quest 64 knows how to shut the fuck up — a rare feat for the genre at the time, and certainly not a skill I ever mastered, personally. Anyway, the moment video game RPGs felt obliged to inundate players with unwavering narrative dumps while leaving them little agency to co-author the tale was when they missed the whole point of role playing.

Now that’s not a knock on all the incredible video game RPGs with strictly linear narratives, but perhaps “role playing” is a misnomer for games that more closely resemble serialized fantasy novels with level grinding than actual role playing experiences. I do appreciate games that try to split the difference, though. At any rate, I’ll digress before the rest of this post becomes a celebration of the sheer ambiguity and minimalist, occasionally batshit narratives of Dragon’s Dogma and Panzer Dragoon Saga. They fucking rule.

You can talk to the horse? I wonder what they will say!
Well, I don’t know what I was expecting…

What was I talking about again?

Oh, right.

a.k.a Eltale Monsters in Japan and Holy Magic Century in PAL territories.

All said, the critics weren’t wrong. Quest 64 can be painfully bland and generic, which is typified in much of its spatial design. While visiting each town, Brian will stumble into several identical homes (McCottages?) while chatting up villagers as he helps himself to their treasure chests of honey bread and mint leaves. When it’s time to rest, Brian will stay at a number of identical inns, which function more or less like a corporate motel chain. Or at least they would if they had any obvious revenue model. The inns and “shops” never actually charge Brian for anything, and as far as I can tell, Celtland has no currency system of any sort. People just kinda let Brian have whatever. It might even be an anarchist utopia if it weren’t for all the murderous hooligan fish.

“We’ll leave the lamp on for ya.”

This copy/paste approach to world design takes a toll on the wayfinding, as well. While trudging through Quest 64’s meandering dungeons, I habitually backtracked to familiar areas without realizing it. With few landmarks or unique features to flavor its pathways, the new areas Brian visits are seldom distinguished from the places he’s already been. Compounding the frustration is the sheer frequency of enemy encounters. Sometimes Brian can’t go three steps without getting rushed by yet another gang of were-rabbits or tree people. This elevates backtracking — and then unbacktracking — among Brian’s most formidable foes.

Brian braces himself for the physical and mental anguish of slogging through yet another section of an already endless cave.

Yet — despite all the generic aspects of its world — I’m awfully surprised by the shitload of charm Quest 64 does muster. It’s a remarkably simple game but, as it turns out, that simplicity has its upsides.

For all its generic map layouts and architecture, Quest 64’s aesthetics are inviting in their vibrancy. As often as they confuse me, the meandering environments also lull me in with their rich hues and lush biomes. Brian wanders through cliffside meadows, valley meadows, dense forests, rolling deserts, caves, ice caves, and mines (which I guess are also caves?). In some ways, its bright locales exude all the optimism of Nintendo’s iconic, saccharine flair. Even if Quest 64 was never heralded among the N64’s defining classics, it often looks the part. There’s a certain warmth in that.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_2119.jpg

Between dungeons, Brian takes refuge in a number settlements across Celtland, which vary in size and grandeur but are uniform in their function. Their townsfolk endure similar woes which set the context for Brian’s involvement in their business. Arriving in town, Brian chats with the locals who gossip about the shady shenanigans blighting the area before directing him to discuss the matter with the kingdom monarch or other local authority. Immediately impressed with Brian’s magic prowess, they beckon him to explore the next dungeon and hunt down the next boss, who likely stole one the elemental stones (mini-MacGuffins) Brian needs to progress to the next region of the world.

Functionally, this approach isn’t so different from the formulaic rhythm of other JRPGs; it’s just a lot more obvious about it. By dialing back the entangled plotlines, dramatic set pieces, and packed side quests standardized by its contemporaries, Quest 64 leaves those bones a lot more exposed. I find it’s no-bullshit approach to be earnest and refreshing but your mileage may vary.

An obligatory tavern.

Quest 64’s NPCs are often engrossed in their own juicy drama, which lends some endearing, if modest bread crumbs to Celtland’s trace lore. Slunk in the corner of a pub, a disgraced nobleman ponders his family’s fate in a war-torn town Brian will visit hours later. Elsewhere, parents impose their ambitions upon their daughters to sing professionally, or to marry a bratty prince. Crossing the seas, a pirate captain laments that his crew became stranded at a remote coastal cottage, to the mutual dismay of the resident sorceress who neither appreciates their company or that her water jewel was just stolen by a nearby fiend. If nothing else, their situations offer amiable set dressing for Brian’s humble voyage.

Buried beneath its modesty, Quest 64 is surprisingly inventive stuff in its mechanics and systems. Namely, it’s magic-centric combat and approach to level progression are refreshing in their simplicity.

While slogging along the trails and corridors, random monsters will attack Brian with relative frequency. Apart from looking cool as hell, these monsters make great fodder for Brian’s suite of elemental magic attacks and other abilities, which grow more robust and powerful as the quest winds on. As he levels up, or collects “spirits” strewn throughout the world, you can distribute upgrade points to each of Brian’s elemental categories. Water is the default in that it eventually unlocks crucial healing spells for later in the game. Beyond that, Brian builds up a variety of other attack and buff/debuff spells as you attribute elemental points to Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Not that they need more elemental points. They’re already an amazing band.
(Image: Discogs)

Conceptually, I enjoyed learning and experimenting with Brian’s repertoire of spells, which vary in their range, attack patterns, and damage dealt against particular monsters depending on their susceptibility to each element. The unique spatial mechanics of combat feed into this. Battles are turn-based but you need to maneuver Brian around the combat area in ways that give him the best chance of hitting enemies given on the nature of each spell. However, he and the monsters can only move so far on each turn, which demands a mix of long range wind attacks, medium-range fireballs, and short range ice walls (which can freeze enemies and are totally awesome). Those strategies will evolve depending on how the battle ebbs and flows.

Later on, that balance falls apart. I eventually learned the Avalanche spell, which lets Brian drop a bunch of boulders on enemies in a wide range, so I just started spamming it. That worked a little too well. Otherwise, if you don’t feel like using magic attacks, Brian can simply bonk enemies with his staff. That’s probably one of the most powerful attacks in the game, actually.

Bonk!

Additionally, Brian can level up stats that increase his HP, MP, defense, and speed (the range he can move during battle, per turn). Interestingly, Brian builds up experience towards these just by doing things naturally, whether that’s hitting enemies, getting hit, or simply running around. It’s like “Baby’s First Elder Scrolls” in not a bad way.

So, yeah. Brian is cool. He doesn’t say much. He smacks stuff. He casts kickass elemental spells. He kills monsters. He aspires to be a sorcerer…which reminds me a lot of another game…wait, could Quest 64 be a prequel to the 2001 Xbox action RPG, NightCaster?!

Goddamn right! There are too many similarities between Quest 64’s Brian and NightCaster’s Arran — and their respective elemental magic abilities and gameplay concepts — for them not to be the same person. I’m calling it. It’s canon.

NightCaster is the Quest 64 sequel we never knew we wanted — and we probably didn’t — yet we always had all along.

Many of Quest 64’s parts flow together in unexpected ways. In the early game, Quest 64 almost feels like a proto-roguelike. Before investing enough Water points to learn the almighty healing spell, a lot of my time with Brian was spent dying on repeat. And when he “dies,” he really just wakes up at the last inn he visited, with his level progress in tact, where he can replenish his HP and MP, save his game, and be back on his merry way. This fed into a compelling cycle where I’d leave town, walk through the grassy meadow, kill some hellhounds and frog knights, level up, get killed, wake back up at the inn, and repeat until Brian grew powerful enough to beat the barbarian boss dude and reach the next inn. Honestly, there was something relaxing about that loop. Even if it wasn’t necessarily “great design,” it helped fuel the charm that slowly and sneakily pervaded other facets of Quest 64.

In all, Quest 64 is a humbly optimistic adventure. Revisiting it today, I half-expected to forget the game as quickly as I finished it. However, with some distance, I feel like it fills a welcome niche for the genre. Brian is a humble hero in a humble world and Quest 64 doesn’t care to dazzle, overwhelm, or to be anything more than the modest little game that it is. It’s not an especially lengthy journey but I appreciate that it respects my time. Overall, Quest 64 is at its best when I can sit back and listen to podcasts while Brian leisurely moseys and maims his way through the land.

Also, those monster designs really are pretty rad…

Well, uh, most of the monster designs are rad, at least. Some of them are just creepy.

And finally, I’ll leave you with some other random moments from the adventure…

Brian may be a little mage but he’s a pretty big pervert.

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